The Trump administration rejected Exxon Mobil’s request to resume an oil drilling project in Russia that is currently blocked by US sanctions, a tangible reminder that American policy toward Moscow has yet to change as much as some observers in both countries had expected.
Shooting down Exxon’s request allows the White House to dodge a pair of political hand grenades: the raging controversy over Trump’s ties to Russia, which are currently being investigated by Congress and the FBI, and the lingering question of whether an administration whose top diplomat is former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson will be able to impartially decide matters related to the oil giant.
In a statement Friday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said the department “will not be issuing waivers to U.S. companies, including Exxon, authorizing drilling prohibited by current Russian sanctions.”
Exxon originally put in a request for the waiver, which would’ve allowed it to resume a joint venture with Russian oil giant Rosneft in the summer of 2015, but it was rejected at that time. According to the Wall Street Journal, Exxon began to pursue the application again in March, about a month after Tillerson was narrowly confirmed as secretary of state.
The State Department was one of multiple agencies that had a say in the waiver, but Tillerson wasn’t involved in this decision — he’s recused himself from any issues that involve Exxon for two years, and he no longer has stock in the company. The former Exxon chief executive developed a close relationship with Rosneft and the Kremlin during deals that he struck with Rosneft between 2011 and 2013.
The Trump administration’s rejection of the waiver — which would have provided a financial boost to Moscow, given how much the Russian economy has been hammered by Western sanctions — comes amid new and growing tensions with the Kremlin.
During the campaign, Trump spoke warmly of Russian leader Vladimir Putin and suggested he might be willing to lift some of the sanctions on the country the US imposed after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. That’s now become something of a political impossibility given that multiple Trump campaign aides are in the crosshairs of federal investigations looking for signs of collusion with Russia in the run-up to the November vote.
Washington and Moscow have also butted heads recently over Trump’s decision to strike a Syrian air base in response to a chemical weapons attack earlier in April. With tensions between the two countries on the rise, it’s perhaps no surprise that the Trump administration stayed away from a move that would have helped an adversarial power while raising new questions about the White House’s own motivations and integrity.